A moral dilemma is a situation in which a choice must be made between conflicting courses of action, each of which is morally supportable. The key word is conflicting—meeting either obligation necessitates violating the other. In other words, the person is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Figuratively speaking, of course.
By bureaucrat I mean anyone who works for the government in any capacity. This includes civil servants, military officers in governmental roles, staff members of agencies and departments, and consultants. This definition also includes both elected and appointed officials.
The examples of moral dilemmas I will discuss concern the federal bureaucrats who were involved in three recent and highly publicized scandals.
- On September 11, 2012, the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by terrorists, and four Americans, including the ambassador, were killed. The U.S. government’s official response, repeated by many officials for a number of weeks, was to deny terrorist involvement and instead blame a “spontaneous” demonstration protesting an anti-Muslim video. Many months later, it was established that a number of government officials knew at the time that the official explanation was false. These included President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Panetta, UN Ambassador Rice, and a number of high-ranking military officers. Some of their aides and associates may also have known.
The dilemma faced by each of these individuals was (a) to tell the truth and risk negative consequences or (b) to support the lie and likely go unscathed. In President Obama’s case the consequence of telling the truth was the possible loss of the forthcoming election; in Secretary Clinton’s, rejection as a 2016 candidate; in the case of the others, dismissal from their positions and damage to their future career prospects. All chose to advance the lie or, in the case of those of lower rank, to remain silent about it.
- Edward Snowden is a computer expert who served as a consultant to the CIA with a high-level security clearance. In that capacity he became aware that the government was engaged in secret surveillance activities. Believing the public had a right to know what was being done in their name and, in many cases to them, he chose to expose the surveillance, even though doing so violated his obligation to keep the program confidential. As a result, his passport was revoked and he sought asylum in Russia. (Some have suggested his ties to Russia preceded his whistle blowing.)
- A 2013 congressional investigation revealed that IRS officials had been prejudiced in their handling of non-profit tax status applications—specifically, they had subjected conservative groups to special scrutiny and delayed or denied their applications without cause. In some cases, the officials also disclosed conservative groups’ confidential information, including donor lists, to the groups’ political opponents. The dilemma for the IRS workers who were directed to engage in this discrimination was whether to report the matter to Congress and possibly lose their jobs or remain silent and participate in the moral and legal offense. They chose silence.
Some reporters and analysts implied that there were no moral issues involved in these three cases, just pragmatic decisions. Others implied that there were moral issues but that the choices involved were easy to make. Both perspectives are mistaken.
Each of the three cases was a moral issue because it involved moral obligation. But the choice in each was far from easy because there were not just one but two conflicting obligations. The moral dilemma was very real in each case, particularly for the individuals in subordinate positions.
The fact that the choices were difficult does not mean that all of them were equally moral. Even when two choices are very nearly equal, close examination will usually reveal that one is superior. The following questions are helpful in deciding which choice that is.
The Benghazi case: Were the American people entitled to the truth? Was creating a false story about the attack in keeping with the moral ideals of fairness, justice, and honesty? Was the individuals’ desire to preserve or advance their careers a sufficient reason to lie? Did lying set a dangerous precedent? How did the eventual exposure of the lie affect public confidence in government?
The Snowden case: Was informing the American people of the secret surveillance program important enough for Snowden to violate his oath to remain silent about the program? What were the consequences, favorable and unfavorable, of his revelations? Could he have avoided, or at least mitigated the unfavorable consequences by choosing a less public way of informing—say, by presenting the facts to a congressional committee rather than to the media?
The IRS case: Did the IRS have a moral (and legal) obligation to treat all applicants for tax-exemptions equally? If so, how should the officials at various levels of the IRS have reacted when directed to discriminate against conservative groups? Should they have refused to carry out the directive or at least reported the matter to appropriate authorities? Was fear of losing their jobs sufficient reason for them to obey the directive and remain silent? What were the consequences of discriminating against certain applicants?
Addressing these questions would have enabled the people involved to examine the possible choices thoughtfully and decide which was more moral. Yet it seems clear that most of them did not think very far beyond their own self-interest.
Holding individuals responsible for their poor moral choices is appropriate. But it is also appropriate to consider what, aside from human weakness, makes moral reasoning and action difficult for many people. That is a question that has interested me for many years and led me to write Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, now in a ninth edition. To know better is not necessarily to do better, but the habit of asking moral questions is an important foundation for behaving morally. And that foundation should be reinforced at every level of education.
To see more of this author’s work, visit www.mind-at-work.com